Community Housing in the Spotlight

Pictured Above: The 37-unit Speonk Commons project, recently completed by Georgica Greens Ventures and the Southampton Housing Authority, is a mixture of shops and apartments adjacent to the Speonk Long Island Rail Road station.

Local leaders on the South Fork began quantifying the need for affordable housing decades ago, but without the resources to put a dent in the thousands of local people looking for the vital foothold of their own places to live, those numbers can seem too daunting to comprehend.

But if ballot measure asking voters to approve new Community Housing Funds this Nov. 8 in East Hampton, Southampton, Southold and Shelter Island are approved, we could soon be seeing some real change.

“One project at a time every couple years doesn’t meet the demand,” said South Fork New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele at a recent League of Women Voters forum on this November’s vote. “It’s not the political will that’s the problem. It’s the resources. Without a dedicated fund, it’s impossible for the towns to meet the demand.”

The proposed Community Housing Funds are based on the wildly successful Community Preservation Fund (CPF), which has generated about $2 billion for land preservation on the East End since its inception in 1998. 

The Community Housing Fund, like the Community Preservation Fund, would be funded by a real estate transfer tax paid at the closing by the buyers of properties in the East End. While the CPF tax is 2 percent, the CHF tax would be one-half of a percent, in addition to the CPF tax. The CHF money would be placed in a dedicated town-run fund in each of the towns where the referendum passes, and could only be spent in accordance with a Community Housing Plan drafted by each town.

Currently, the first $250,000 of the purchase price of a property is exempt from the CPF tax in Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns, while the first $150,000 of the purchase price is exempt in Southold and Riverhead towns. Next year, that exemption, for both the CPF and the CHF, will go up to $400,000 in Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island, and to $200,000 in Southold and Riverhead.

The Riverhead Town Board has declined to hold a referendum this year, citing that housing in Riverhead is already more affordable than in other East End towns.

“This doesn’t mean they can’t do this in the future,” said Mr. Thiele at the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and North Fork forum, “Affordable Housing: Hope or Promise,” which aired via Zoom and on Sea-TV’s YouTube channel on Sept. 13. “It’s an authority that each of the towns have. Riverhead could certainly do it any time in the future. The revenue source would be in place until 2050 if approved by voters.”

“It’s a town-by-town vote,” added East Hampton Housing & Community Development Director Tom Ruhle at the forum. “It can pass in one town, and not in another town.”

Mr. Thiele added that the individual towns could hold a new referendum in future years if it doesn’t pass this year. 

One of the sticking points mentioned by Riverhead board members was that the increase in the exemption might eat into the town’s Community Preservation Fund revenue — which could be problematic in a town that has passed bonds against future CPF revenue in order to preserve land now.

“Most (CPF) money is generated on the luxury, high end of the market. It will reduce revenue to a small degree,” acknowledged Mr. Thiele. “We picked the $250,000 exemption (on the South Fork) in 1998 because that was the median price of a house then, and we didn’t want to affect the affordable housing market. We haven’t updated that number in 25 years, and it was in need of being updated to begin with…. It’s a small trade-off for helping to promote affordable and community housing on the East End.”

Southampton Town Housing Authority Executive Director Curtis Highsmith and Shelter Island Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams also participated in the forum.

“What I’ve learned in the process is the misconceptions in everyone’s knowledge of affordable housing,” said Mr. Highsmith. “I’ve asked people at forums to define what affordable housing is and I’ve walked out with nine or ten definitions. We have an opportunity, with this funding available, to also teach the community a little more about the creation of affordable housing, and that it is possible in the Hamptons.”

Mr. Highsmith said the Southampton Housing Authority manages five waiting lists for a spot in one of the town’s affordable housing complexes, each of which has more than 1,000 names on it.

“There’s never a week that I don’t get a phone call from someone with tears of emotion who has to leave where they’ve grown up,” he said. “There’s just no opportunity out here. Something has to be done.”

Ms. Brach-Williams said Shelter Island’s Community Housing Plan will be complete and on the town’s website by Sept. 23, in time for a public hearing on Oct. 11, well ahead of the November referendum.

Ms. Brach-Williams said she was surprised that the town’s consultants’ top recommendations were to create more rental housing, and to put in place a mechanism for overseeing that housing, either in partnership with a non-profit agency or through an intermunicipal agreement with another town that has a housing agency.

“We’re going to approach rentals in a couple different ways — on town-owned land and on increasing accessory dwelling units,” she said. “We’ll be educating homeowners on adding affordable housing to their properties, and what the regulations would be.”

Regulations for accessory apartments are different in each of the East End towns, and many are currently revamping their accessory apartment codes as part of their Community Housing Plans, and to address sticking points that have kept more people from building accessory apartments to date.

Each town can draft its Community Housing Plan to meet the unique needs of their town.

Mr. Ruhle said East Hampton is envisioning using some of the money for “shared equity,” in which the town will contribute to the full market cost of a house for a homebuyer, but will retain that percentage of equity throughout the time that person owns the house, recouping their investment when the house is sold. He added that this will allow smaller homes that are now “teardown fodder” to continue to be recycled by full-time residents, and will also allow the town to upgrade septic systems on these older homes, protecting the environment at the same time.

He said the town’s comprehensive plan, decades ago, said East Hampton needed 2,000 units of affordable housing.

“We’ve done 650 units in the past 30 years,” he said. “With this referendum passing, we could easily do that again, but there’s no single bullet. The single, most cost-efficient way to build affordable housing is to build a giant skyscraper, but that has no place on the East End and nobody wants that. This tax will probably help us get better, less-dense housing spread out throughout the community.”

Mr. Highsmith served as the Chairman of Southampton Village’s Architectural Review Board for 13 years before becoming the Director of the Housing Authority.

“There used to be a lot of multi-family homes in Southampton Village that people decided to convert to single family homes,” he said. “We could bring back the vernacular of village-style homes that were multi-family. I was never a fan of building a big old home and putting it behind a hedge. I think the possibility of creating an accessory apartment and multifamily homes can be achieved with this funding.”

“This shows that local issues have to have a balance,” said Mr. Thiele. “We can’t put these things in a silo. People want a balanced community. They want clean water and community character. They want also to have the opportunity to be able to buy a house, either where they grew up or where they have a job. We can’t simply build our way out of this. The demand is astounding. We need the resources to do this.”

“Almost every problem we face on the East End, one way or another, gets back to affordable housing,” he added. “Too much traffic? People can’t afford to live here and have to drive to their jobs. Local volunteer fire departments and ambulance corps are having difficulty recruiting and retaining people for volunteer services. Our local hospitals have vacancies because even doctors and nurses can’t afford to live here, never mind local businesses, waters or waitresses and teachers…. We see it every day in front of our faces, and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. House prices are up, there’s reduced inventory, and the demands of people buying a second home are outcompeting local buyers. Half of the families that live on the East End would be eligible for these programs, because that’s how bad the need is.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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